73 pages 2 hours read

Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill, 2015) is the first in the An Ember in the Ashes series, followed by A Torch Against the Night. This young adult fantasy novel follows an elite warrior and a peasant girl as they find what it means to be free in a brutal world. An Ember in the Ashes debuted at number two on the young adult New York Times bestsellers list and was also a USA Today and international bestselling book. It won the People’s Choice Award for favorite fantasy in 2016 and was nominated for several other awards, including Goodreads Choice for young adult fantasy and debut author (2015), the Milwaukee Teen Book Award (2016), and the Evergreen Teen Book Awards (2018).

Sabaa Tahir is the New York Times bestselling author of books for young adults, including the An Ember in the Ashes series (2015-2020) and All My Rage (2022), which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Born to parents who emigrated to the United States from Pakistan via the United Kingdom, Tahir grew up in the Mojave Desert in California. She attended UCLA and interned for the Washington Post, where she took a job after graduating. Inspired by the news stories she edited, she wrote An Ember in the Ashes while working at the Post.

This guide follows the 2015 Razorbill edition of An Ember in the Ashes.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide discuss violence, death, rape, enslavement, corporeal punishment, and child abandonment.

Plot Summary

An Ember in the Ashes is set in a fantasy world ruled by the Martial Empire. Thousands of years ago, the Scholar Empire attacked the jinn (mystical creatures) in hopes of obtaining their superior knowledge. When the jinn wouldn’t relinquish their secrets, the Scholars imprisoned all but one jinn, and that jinn (known thereafter as Nightbringer) fled to the Martial Empire, where he built an elite army to take revenge against the Scholars. At the time of An Ember in the Ashes, the Scholars have been enslaved by the Martials for 500 years, and Nightbringer prepares to bring war upon what’s left of the Scholars.

An Ember in the Ashes is told in alternating points of view from Laia (a 17-year-old Scholar girl) and Elias (a Mask, an elite warrior, at Blackcliff—the Martial military academy). Both wish to be free from the restrictions of their lives, but neither truly knows how to obtain their freedom. At the story’s outset, Laia lives in fear of the Martials destroying her family’s precarious existence, and Elias prepares to desert the army. When Laia’s brother is believed to be working with the resistance (Scholar rebels), the Martials imprison him and kill Laia’s grandparents, sending Laia to the resistance for help. They are reluctant to aid her until she reveals her parents were ranking members of the resistance who were killed several years ago. The resistance agrees to help break Laia’s brother out of prison if she spies on the Commandant of Blackcliff. Terrified but unwilling to let her brother die, Laia agrees.

Meanwhile, Elias, his best friend Helene (the only girl at Blackcliff), and the rest of their class graduate. Before Elias can desert, Augurs (holy men) arrive to announce that an ancient prophesy has come to pass. The current emperor will die without an heir, and four new graduates have been chosen to participate in the trials (four tests) to determine which two will be the new emperor and captain of the imperial guard. Elias, Helene, a boy named Marcus, and Marcus’s brother Zak are chosen, putting Elias’s plan to desert on hold.

Laia goes undercover as the Commandant’s new enslaved servant. Within a few days, Laia is beaten and branded as the Commandant’s property, and she despairs she’ll never get the information the resistance needs. During the trials, Elias and Helene team up to face their worst fears and a barrage of attacks from friends, foes, and mythical creatures they didn’t believe existed. One night, Laia spies on the Commandant and gains information for the resistance, but when she reports, they give her a new task instead of extracting her and going to rescue her brother. Back on the school grounds, she crosses paths with Elias, and an instant attraction blooms between them. Elias knows getting close to Laia would only put her in danger, and Laia fears Elias due to his status. Helene begins to act oddly, which worries Elias.

Laia is tasked with finding a way to sneak an army into Blackcliff. One night, she follows Marcus and Zak to the training building, where Elias and Helene spar. Laia sees the brothers access a hidden passage, but before she can slip away, they catch her, and Marcus beats her badly. Elias and Helene save her, and Marcus flees. Helene has been acting oddly, because ever since the encounter with the mythical creatures in the second trial, her singing has been able to heal, and magic is expressly forbidden to any but the Augurs. Though she has little regard for Scholars, she heals Laia because she can’t leave her to die.

In the third trial, Elias and Helene are pitted against one another. Their battle platoons must fight until either Elias or Helene kills the other, and if a soldier shows mercy, one of his comrades will die. Hating himself, Elias battles through his friends to get to Helene, who ferociously comes at him. Elias almost kills her, stopped only by the magical armor the Augurs awarded her after winning the second trial. Elias is named winner of the third trial, and he returns to his room to find Laia’s been left there as his prize. The two spend the night talking, and Elias refutes much of the information the resistance has given Laia, making her wonder if they intend to rescue her brother.

The fourth trial is the following day. Elias, Helene, and Marcus (who killed Zak in the third trial) must battle until only two are left, and whoever kills a captured Laia will be named emperor. Elias refuses, instead defending Laia, and the Augurs fake Laia’s death to make it look like Marcus is the winner. For refusing to participate, Elias is disqualified and will be killed at dawn, leaving Helene as Marcus’s second-in-command. The Augurs bring Laia to the resistance, who reveal they were never going to rescue her brother. Laia runs before they can kill her and returns to Blackcliff to save Elias.

With help from the other enslaved Scholars, Laia sets explosives around Blackcliff’s grounds, which go off during Elias’s execution ceremony. Laia frees Elias after he promises to help free her brother, and the two race away, only to be cornered by Helene. Elias begs her to run with them, but Helene refuses. The Augurs foretold that Elias would die unless Helene swore to be loyal to the new emperor. Helene has been in love with Elias for years and can’t bear to see him die, and though Marcus terrifies her, she will stay to give him a chance. Elias thanks her and leaves with Laia as Helene covers for him one last time.